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“I Can’t Imagine Going Back”: Inside A Duke Professor’s Flipped Classroom

Dr. Mohamed Noor, a biology professor at Duke University, has taught his Genetics and Evolution class twice in MOOC form, including last semester when he decided to teach it simultaneously with a new flipped classroom version for his on-campus students.

Flipped classroom and MOOCs

by Justin Ornellas via Flickr

At this point, Dr. Noor is one of about 400 professors on the Coursera platform and one of many hundreds more teaching MOOCs overall, many of whom are sharing their experiences in online forums. But I wanted to talk with him particularly because I was struck by the insightful way he has described his teaching strategies and the learning outcomes he perceived in those two different groups of students. (I encourage any teacher or administrator trying to get a feel for what the MOOC experience is actually like to read his blog, Science, Food, etc.) I was also struck by the enthusiastic and affectionate way Dr. Noor’s MOOC students continue to engage with him in social media after the class finished.

Dr. Noor was kind enough to find time during his end-of-semester grading — and from his own participation as a student in another MOOC — to share some additional thoughts, particularly advice for students taking MOOCs in the future. Perhaps what’s most helpful is that he paints a vivid picture of what actually goes on in a flipped classroom anyway.

Please enjoy the audio file below or, if you prefer, the transcript. And stay alert for what he has to say to new high school graduates and MOOCs. It’s really helpful advice.

Podcast of Interview With Dr. Mohamed Noor [Download]

 

McGuire

Hello, this is Robert McGuire from MOOC News and Reviews and I’m talking with Professor Mohamed Noor of Duke University where he is the Earl D. McLean Professor of Biology. He most recently has been teaching Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, both in MOOC form on Coursera and for Duke students themselves in a flipped hybrid format – we’re going to ask him more about how that works – with students getting the content online and then using the lecture hall in more interactive ways.

Welcome, Doctor Noor. Thanks for being with us.

Noor

Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

McGuire

So, you’ve actually taught the MOOC twice, so that makes you a veteran. Besides that, you’ve had some very thoughtful things to say in your own blog. So I wanted to get your insight about MOOC students for our readers. Let me ask one very basic question first. On your blog, did I read correctly that you have over 450 students in your Duke class?

Noor

That’s correct. My Duke class almost qualifies for being a MOOC.

McGuire

Yeah, massive live classes. That’s not the kind of university I went to, so it’s very hard for me to envision something like that.

Noor

Honestly, it was new for me as well, because that actually is a record enrollment, and I should point out that the students – I warned them ahead of time that this is going to be the first time that we’re doing the flipped class format, and yet we still had record numbers of students actually sign up. Evaluations that I just received this past week with respect to the class were very interesting, and a lot of them said they were concerned about trying the flipped class format at first, but they were pleasantly surprised, when they actually went through and did it, that it wasn’t really what they anticipated – in a good way.

McGuire

On your blog you have a lot of really interesting narrative and documented detail about how students responded and what the results were, so we won’t get into all that now, but I’ll put the link up and I encourage people to look at that blog post if they’re interested as teachers or administrators or from an institutional perspective exactly how this works and how students are responding. It’s really interesting the way you spelled all that out.

If we went into your lecture hall – so I get the flipped concept when I’m reading about it, but then I’m trying to picture the lecture hall and how this actually works. So if we went in there what would we see?

What actually happens in a flipped classroom?

Noor

Great question. So the lecture hall just looks like — actually it is a lecture theater. It is basically a place where they show movies and plays and things like that, because it has to be large enough to accommodate the number of students that are enrolled. In terms of the actual class period, I broke it up such that the first few minutes of class was me responding to either questions that they got wrong in their pre-class quiz . . . .

Actually, let me take a step back. Before the students even come to the classroom, as you said, they have to watch these videos, which is through the MOOC platform, in our case through Coursera, and then they also have to take a pre-class quiz through a Duke system.

That pre-class quiz has multiple choice questions that they have to respond to, and I actually see their answers the night before. So I have some idea ahead of time, “Oh, here’s an area that a quarter of the class didn’t really understand, even though it’s covered in the lecture, so maybe I should cover it some more.” The other thing is the last question was open-ended: “What was interesting or confusing?” And very often people would elaborate in there, “I completely didn’t understand your explanation of blah.”

So the first few minutes in the class period is devoted to either addressing the kinds of problems that a lot of people got wrong or specifically responding to things that the students in the classroom identified as being confusing. So I would go into that. I would have some slides that I prepared specifically in that context – usually not very many, usually just five or fewer slides just to recap the concept in a slightly different way than it was covered in the MOOC platform.

That’s probably the first ten minutes of class or so, if that, sometimes less than that. It depends on the topic. Most of the class period I just say, “Alright, well you have the questions, so go to it.” And they all pull out these forms.

And what I’ve done before the class, I posted a sheet with somewhere between say five and ten questions that I want them to work on in groups in the classroom. So they’re already sitting next to their friends or colleagues and they then, at that point in time in class, they pull out their piece of paper, they print it out ahead of time or they pull it up on their computers right there or on their iPads right there, and they just start working through it.

I walk around the room, and I’m just going to each group one-by-one saying, “Hey, which one are you on right now?” They say, “Oh, I’m on number two.” “And what did you think of number one? What do you think the answer to that was?” They say, “Oh, I think it was this, but I’m not positive.” And we start getting a little bit of a dialogue going.

Meanwhile – again, it’s a big class – we have 19 teaching assistants – they’re walking around the room as well, and they’re doing exactly the same thing saying, “Hey, what did you get for number two?” Basically, they’re just trying to engage them as their working in these small groups.

McGuire

I was going to say that one thing that hadn’t occurred to me is this is probably a better educational experience for those teaching assistants, too.

Noor

Oh, yeah. It’s actually a lot more work for them, but I totally agree with you that it’s a much better teaching experiencing for them. And normally what would happen in a standard class they’d just be sitting there in the room like the students taking in the material at the same time. In this case, they really have to come into the class prepared, though what I do to help them a little bit more than the regular class students, I send them both the same set of questions that the students get, but I also send them some worked out answers so they actually do know how to solve these problems. A lot of these teaching assistants aren’t necessarily that much more expert in the field than some of the students. They’re recent graduates, right?

McGuire

Right. And it’s really hard for teachers to recognize why students behave the way they do, so if the work is not done or whatever, we start to project, and it seems like if you’re engaging with students this way and if you’re teaching assistants are engaging the students this way, it must really help you connect with them and understand where they’re coming from in a different way.

Noor

Absolutely. Absolutely. I have a colleague here — I think I mentioned it in my blog – [pullquote position="right"]I have a colleague here named Dan Gauthier from Physics, and he said he’s never been so in tune with the students as when he did the flipped class, and I definitely felt the same way.[/pullquote] I very very much had a stronger idea than ever before of, “These are exactly the concepts that they don’t get or these are the concepts that they do get, and this is why.” You know, common misunderstandings, that they interpreted what I said here to mean this.

And in a regular lecture there’s no way you could identify misinterpretation, because they write it down, and they write it down in their misinterpreted way, and they just keep moving on. Whereas this way I catch it before any significant grading is ever done for them, so I can catch it, correct it, and then they can move on understanding it that much better ahead of time.

McGuire

Well, we’re making it sound kind of perfect. Will you ever run a lecture course in a traditional way again?

Noor

Certainly not this class. I can’t imagine going back. The comment that I always tell people is that I don’t know that flipped class is the best approach, but now I know with absolute certainty that the traditional lecture format is not the best approach. So certainly I’m willing to experiment with different forms of lecturing, but [pullquote]I don’t think, especially for this particular set, that I could ever go back to the traditional lecture. It would feel like a massive step backwards.[/pullquote]

What does a MOOC teacher get out of it?

McGuire

Well, I get why you do this for Duke’s tuition-paying students, but why did you want to open up this class to the wider world in MOOC form?

Noor

That’s a great question. My original motivation was not the same as my end motivation. My original motivation was I thought having the deadline of having the MOOC coming up in the fall would force me to actually do all the recordings in a timely manner, which it did. I completed all those pretty quickly.

I didn’t necessarily anticipate what it was going to be like doing the MOOC thing. I almost thought of it as being much more passive then it ended up being. I thought it would be almost similar to putting things into iTunes, and then people would somehow take it up or don’t, and I don’t really know what’s happening. That was not really what the experience was at all, though.

Among the online students, there was definitely a subset with whom I had no idea what was happening. In some sense, they were essentially watching it like a TV show, and I don’t mean that in a negative sense, but they were engaging themselves in something interesting, but they weren’t actually necessarily going in and doing the problems. They were just interested, and they just wanted to watch it passively.

There is definitely a significantly large – and by significantly large I mean in the hundreds, potentially into the thousands – who actually wanted to directly interact, and they did this through the MOOC discussion forums. [pullquote position="right"]That was incredibly rewarding to watch, because you could see people working out problems in these group formats almost like what’s happening with the on-campus class, except, in this case, worldwide and doing it in an asynchronous manner.[/pullquote] They’d go through the topics, and they’d express their excitement about different pieces to it.

The big difference between the online students overall and the Duke students is the online students by large, especially the first time I offered it, were getting no form of credit whatsoever. So the only reason they would persist after the very first lecture would be as if they were engaged in the material, if they were interested. Otherwise, there’s no reason to keep going. You could just stop. So just the level of enthusiasm and excitement for the material was very infectious, and it made me feel good.

McGuire

Well, yeah, I get that, but people keep asking like, “What’s in it for you?” And I keep asking teachers this, and they keep saying what you’re saying – that you just want to – but I’m going to keep pressing and ask, what’s in it for you? What do you or Duke get out of all this extra effort?

Noor

I won’t answer on behalf of Duke. For me, personally, it’s just fun. Obviously, becoming a professor is not the most lucrative profession, financially. All of us could have probably done something else that would have made us a lot more money, but the reason we wanted to go into academia was that there’s a topic that we’re really excited about, and we want to do research in it, and we want to talk to people about it. So this is that. Our hobby is our research is our topic of study, so for me it was just fun.

McGuire

What’s the difference between the two experiences, that is, between the traditional students in the flipped classroom – the tuition-paying students at Duke – and the students around the world in MOOC form? What is the difference between the two experiences of those two populations?

Noor

The MOOC students are very variable, right? There’s a subset who are doing this because they’re anticipating going to college in the future, and they want to know this material so they can prepare. There’s a subset now, especially some of these new things that they have out like the Signature Track and the ACE certification associated with my class, who actually are looking for some credit, and that was not true in the first iteration of the class. It was true in the second, but there’s a large group that say, “I’ve heard about evolution or I’ve heard about genetics or I’ve heard about personal genotyping. I just want to know some more.” And that’s the reason they’re doing it. So it’s a very pure knowledge venture for them.

And that happens a little bit for the Duke students, but that’s usually not the primary motivation. For my class at Duke, it is an introductory biology class. The vast majority of students are premedical. I’m not saying that in a negative way, at all That’s a great profession to go into. But the main reason they’re taking the class is because it’s required. They have to do this before they move on. So they can watch it, and they can be engaged but their main motivation is the certification of moving on to the upper level courses and moving on to get the degree.

So I think that’s the biggest difference issue there. The nice thing is, at least as far as I could tell, the Duke students do get very engaged in the material by the end, and they’re very interactive with it, so in the end they’re not all that different from the MOOC students who persist all the way through, but at least initially coming in it was because of an intrinsic love of genetics or evolution.

McGuire

Right. On your blog you have some data about student satisfaction, about grades and pass rates, but you didn’t mention anything by way of comparison. So in the flipped model are you getting better outcome measures then compared to past semesters?

Noor

That’s a great question. So I looked at that for the first test it was significant – not statistically significant, but a noticeable improvement in grade. It was actually not statistically significant. I did look at that relative to the previous semester. The second test was not actually dramatically better, and I think part of what happened is I think a lot of students – not a majority by any means, but a significant number – were overconfident after the first test. And I warned them about this in class. I said, “You know, typically speaking the second test material is less of a review of what you’ve had in the past, and it’s conceptually more challenging.” Yet I saw right off the bat that attendance numbers started to wane. I saw that in talking to students one-on-one a lot more of them said they were behind in watching the videos and things like that.

So I think the high performance on test one actually became a negative for their performance on the second test. Now the good thing is there was at least no drop. It was basically dead on the same grade with the flipped versus non-flipped class. So there was at least no detriment associated, but I think we lost the advantage that was starting.

McGuire

When you look at the MOOC students, what strategies did they use that work well in that environment? What did they do that isn’t so successful?

Noor

The biggest thing they do that works well is getting help in the forums. [pullquote position="right"]Those who participate in the forums and get a lot of help in the forums definitely gain a lot from that. And not just going to the forums and just copying the answers but actually really engaging with the discussion and trying to figure out what’s happening.[/pullquote] Now, again, it partly depends on why people are in there. I’m enrolled in a MOOC right now myself, and I’m actually extremely behind. I’m like several weeks behind. So I think officially I’d be classified as failing.

McGuire

You and about two million other people.

Noor

Exactly. But on the other hand, my purpose isn’t to get certified. What I’m taking is the Irrational Behavior class, which is actually offered by a professor here at Duke, ironically. I’m not doing it to get a certification. Actually, I’m about to go on a long trip next week, and I was going to download a bunch of the videos, and I’m watching it purely for entertainment and interest. So, in that regard, I don’t need to study. I’m perfectly happy just absorbing whatever I absorb, and if I don’t absorb everything, eh, so be it.

That’s a fundamental difference between the MOOC students and the on campus students is that the online students have the flexibility to decide to do that. Right? Whereas the Duke students, for example, if they assimilate only 30% of the material they’re going to get an F and be kicked out of the college. There’s a very big cost associated with doing that.

Advice for MOOC students

McGuire

I was going to ask you hypothetically “if you were to take a MOOC,” so we can use an actual example. Is the certificate important to you?

Noor

No.

McGuire

And this one, is it outside your field of expertise?

Noor

Yes, very far outside. It’s a business school class, whereas I’m in biology.

McGuire

So the question I was going to ask is, hypothetically, if you were to choose a MOOC for yourself this summer, which you’ve already done, how do you choose? How do you discriminate a good one from a bad one?

Noor

That’s a great question. Well, you never know about quality ahead of time. I mean there are some online sites like grademycourse.com or things like that that have reviews of MOOCs. I don’t know that I would ever even particularly use that in a big way unless it was a really extreme review that I happened to stumble upon. Mostly I’m just going to do it by topic. There’s a couple of others that I periodically peek into. So there’s others that are very much in field that I look into, like there’s the Useful Genetics class which is offered right now. I peek into it periodically, because I’m curious for what I can do to improve my MOOC. So I’m looking to see what other people are doing in that context, so that’s one reason I tend to look at them.

But for me, the biggest thing is it’s just a topic that’s interesting. The beauty of MOOCs is that you don’t have to discriminate if it’s going to be good or bad right. You can just sign up, watch it and if you hate the first two, stop. [pullquote position="right"]There’s no cost. There’s no negative, and the amount of time lost would be like 20 minutes. It wouldn’t be that bad at all if you ended up in a bad MOOC. Again, it’s a very different experience than enrolling in a college class where, if you sign up in a bad class, you’re stuck.[/pullquote]

McGuire

You referred some specific students to me – and they’re all big fans of yours by the way . . .

Noor

That’s very gracious.

McGuire

. . .  in an online class with tens of thousands of students, how do some of them end up coming to your attention that way?

Noor

That’s a great question. So the students first came to my attention through heavy participation and discussion forums. I mentioned that there’s maybe a couple of thousand who actually went to the forums, but among the couple of thousand there are probably maybe 40 to 50 that post a lot. They’re very very very heavily engaged in discussion forums. So those people most definitely rise to the top as the people who I start to see and start to feel like I have some knowledge of their ability and things like that.

For my online class, I did a Google Hangout each semester, both the first time and the second time. And I got to talk to some of the students there. As I said, the Google Hangout was ten other students, and the entire thing was like an hour. So that was a fairly minor way of getting to know them overall, but it just gave me a flavor of, “Here’s the diversity of the kind of people who are in the class.” But, not surprisingly, some of the people who were most active in discussion forums also happened to be the ones who signed up for the Google Hangout. They found out about it well ahead of the others.

What’s happened since the class has ended, a group of my students actually set up a Google community, and they’ve been interacting with each other in there since the class ended, and they invited me to their community as well, and my wife is in there as well, and every day or so I peek in there. There’s a lot of very interesting posts about either other MOOCs or about science in general, often in the areas of genetics and evolution, because that was what brought them together initially. So it’s almost like having a bunch of new friends.

McGuire

Yeah, I know what you mean. I’ve  made a bunch of new friends around the world that way myself, and readers should stay tuned because the students in the community you’re referring to are going to write up a piece about how they formed it, how they’re operating and how they’re taking courses together. So I’m looking forward to seeing that piece when they have it ready.

What adjustments will you make to your MOOC in the future based on the experience you have?

Noor

Great question. Well, definitely any errors that have been identified I definitely want to go back and correct. There were several errors from the first iteration that people identified that I went back over at Christmas break and re-taped little small segments to it. I also introduced, between the first and second time, a whole set of new lectures on sexual selection, which is a topic I hadn’t covered in the first set. For this coming time I’m planning basically the same sort of thing, where, again, there’s more errors that people have identified or areas that were not clearly presented or something like that. So I definitely go back, re-record those snippets and splice them in. And I have a whole new set of lectures I’m planning to record. I haven’t done it yet. I’m planning to record on the topic of phylogenetics, which was, again, not covered at all in this set.

So I’m sort of anticipating this as being sort of an evolutionary thing. I don’t anticipate ever saying – well at least not any time in the near future – saying I’m going to scrap the whole thing and start over. There was way too much effort to be able to do that. But I’m anticipating these sort of tweeks here and there, as well as new material. Eventually what probably happen is a couple of lectures will become dated based on new developments of study of the field. So I’ll probably retire a couple of lectures and then re-record those at that time, but I suspect some – they’re fairly basic in content. They’ll probably stay largely the same for many years.

McGuire

Wow. So imagine some students finishing up high school right now or finishing college right now, and they’re thinking about taking a MOOC this summer, what would you advise them about how to approach it?

Noor

Well, it depends on what stage they are in terms of high school. If they have not yet been accepted to college, it’s probably worth thinking about some of those ACE certification ones, because that can actually potentially count for college credit depending on which college they’re going to. So that will be something they could think about in a very strategic manner. Otherwise, I’d just tell them to pursue whatever it is they’re interested in, a topic they plan to study when they go to college. So someone, for example, who is very interested in business, I would definitely recommend some business school class like this what I’m taking it from Dan Ariely, the Irrational Behavior one. It’s fantastic. It’s really really interesting, it’s very well presented and if it’s a topic they’re interested in they can come into college with that much more knowledge that, “Yes, this is an area that suits me. I want to take more classes in this area.”

Or possibly the opposite. Maybe they take it and say, “Wow, actually I hate business. I think I want to go major in philosophy.” Something like that. So explore, and there’s no reason not to sign up for a whole bunch, and then just keep going with the ones that you like. [pullquote position="right"]Sign up for ten and then watch the first two videos of each of them and then decide after that, “We’ll I’m just going to stick with these two out of that ten.” I mean, that would be a perfectly reasonable way to approach it.[/pullquote]

What’s interesting that I’ve been seeing is that this semester in my class at Duke, at least one student had already taken the MOOC version of the class, so he came in very well prepared for the class because it was exactly the same class.

What’s most amazing to me this semester is a prospective student came and sat in on my class – they had not actually taken my online class, but their mom did. She came up and introduced herself and said, “Hey, I took your online class last semester. It was great.”

McGuire

I didn’t think about . . . You’ve got the helicoptering parent problem on a lot of college campuses and now the MOOC provides another opportunity to monitor your child.

Noor

Absolutely. Because I know it happened, too. Some of my on-campus students mentioned that they had a parent or a sibling who had taken the class, and they were watching it alongside. I wouldn’t assume it was a helicopter parent, because it gives them something to talk about at the dining room table as opposed to, “What did you cover?” And they say a certain term that the parent has no idea what that term means.

McGuire

Well, thank you very much for talking with us. This has been very helpful to our readers I think.

Noor

It was a pleasure talking with you, as well. Thanks for talking with me.

 

 

Robert McGuire (51 Posts)

I’ve been a graduate student in English literature, a newspaper and magazine reporter, an ESL teacher at home and abroad, a marketing consultant and a grants and outcomes measurement specialist in nonprofits. Currently, I provide higher education MOOC consulting services and teach writing at a local university, and my “other job” is volunteering for several local nonprofit organizations. I started this project because I believe MOOCs are going to be an important – not to mention fascinating – social development, and I want to ensure that students and teachers could participate in lively critical dialogue about it. You can find me on G+.